In 2007, I got to see Van Halen, newly reunited with David Lee Roth, at Madison Square Garden. To say I was excited for the show would be a massive understatement. Van Halen has been one of my favorite bands since about the time I started having favorite bands, so to see their (almost) original lineup 22 years later was, to say the least, very exciting. At the show it was apparent that my enthusiasm level probably rated on the low end of the scale for the audience as a whole; I remarked that I had never been to an arena rock show where the audience was so psyched to see the band. It was palpable.
That show was great, I had zero complaints about it, but the same week I returned with my wife to Madison Square Garden to see Stevie Wonder, where the crowd was WAY more psyched than the Van Halen crowd had been. From the moment Stevie took the stage with a 10-minute monologue about his reasons for giving the one-off concert (it was a tribute to his late mother), the crowd was ecstatic — through the medley of his dozens of classic hits, through his many long, hilarious stories, and reaching a peak when he duetted with Tony Bennett on a slowed down, balladized version of his 1968 hit “For Once In My Life.”
But the moment the crowd really, truly lost its mind — I remember my wife clutching my arm and jumping up and down like a little kid — was when Stevie started “Superstition” and, before the first verse, casually said, “I heard Prince is backstage. Prince, if you want to come jam with us, come on out.” Never, before or since, have I seen a concert audience wet itself like when Prince joined Stevie Wonder on stage, borrowed a guitar, and got ready to jam on “Superstition.”
But as he began to play, I got a weird case of deja vu, suddenly remembering a video that I had recently seen on YouTube: a clip from a 1983 James Brown show where James invites Michael Jackson, then at the peak of his “Thriller” ride, up onstage. Michael in turn persuades James to invite Prince, then between “1999” and “Purple Rain,” up onstage as well. It’s amazing and very interesting that footage exists of these three singular performers on stage at one time; but what makes this video a classic is the way Prince — now rightly recognized as one of the greatest performers of all time, completely humiliates himself.
Let’s watch together, shall we?
0:01 We join the incident already in progress, after James has invited Michael to the stage, as Michael makes his way forward. The fact that James chose the vamp on “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” as the moment in his show to call Michael up is an odd one, or is that just in retrospect?
0:34 With a tiny gesture, James brings the band down so Michael can sing a verse. Michael doesn’t actually seem to know what song it is (which is weird because this was a pretty big song for James in 1967), and kind of aimlessly improvises some “I love you”s. But that’s a nitpick that makes it sound like he’s doing worse than he’s doing. He’s Michael Jackson — he’s amazing even when he’s not that great.
0:56 The band throws Michael a curve ball and breaks into “There Was A Time,” one of the uptempo-est numbers in James’ whole repertoire, and Michael responds by kicking into the brand-new set of signature dance moves he’d soon be immortalizing with videos. His moves are awesome and in part send up some of Brown’s most famous steps, but he also does his superfast spin and the moonwalk, but stops just as he’s getting started and gives James an awkward hug. Michael probably knew he would completely show James up if he applied himself at even half strength, because 1983 Michael Jackson was like 1991 Michael Jordan and James Brown was like 2001 Michael Jordan. And who really wants to beat 2001 Michael Jordan? James, for his part, is delighted by this young whippersnapper.
1:16 After presumably saying “thanks” and “big honor” and “you’re the greatest” into James’ ear, Michael goes in again and babbles something else. James looks confused, and strains to hear. Michael tells him again: you should call Prince up to the stage! James frowns. Call who up to the stage? PRINCE, says Michael. Trust me. Just call Prince up here!
1:30 You can see that James is wary — the name “Prince” is not ringing a bell. But he knows Michael Jackson would not invite a scrub onto his stage so after a few “Really?”s, James shrugs and calls Prince up to the stage. You can tell by the way he’s saying “Prince” that he’s never heard of him, which is a little weird considering “1999” had been released the year before. Note the way James makes it clear that bringing this “Prince” to the stage was entirely Michael’s idea. Michael insisted, so if this guy sucks, blame him. That’s old-school show business: Never vouch for an act you haven’t seen.
1:55 It takes Prince a while to reach the stage, as James calls his name out like “Prince” was the name of a puppy that had gotten loose in the audience.
2:14 Prince makes his breathtakingly stupid entrance, riding piggyback on a huge pro-wrestleresque bodyguard. The contrast in their body sizes is striking. As he takes the stage he makes a big show of removing his gloves with his teeth, one finger at a time, like it’s sexy or something. (Have we culturally moved past gloves being sexy? I feel like we have.) Note that when he tosses the first glove into the crowd, somebody chucks it right back at him.
2:20 Prince saunters across the stage like it’s his, and halfheartedly accepts a hug from James. Perhaps in reaction to the snub, or the attitude, or perhaps in reaction to the fact that Prince took 45 seconds to get to the stage (an eternity in band-vamping time), James barks, “Now DO SOMETHING!” His patience with this guy he’s never heard of is waning. “You gotta do something,” he says a couple more times, and steps to the side of the stage. I am not vouching for this guy, this introduction is screaming.
2:33 Bobby Byrd and James’ guitar player sling a Telecaster around Prince’s neck; he fusses with it a little, and then turns to the crowd. One thing people always forget about Prince, since he turned out to be such a weirdo (changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol was not necessarily the oddest thing he’s ever done) and that overshadowed everything else from like 1988 on: the guy is a seriously bitchin’ guitar player. His sound has always been high-gain, high-distortion, very loud, and he is an unusually precise soloist — quite adept in the art of shredding. So, one assumes, that is what he will do to make sure that James Brown does not forget the name “Prince.”
2:48 That seems to be his idea as he begins, but James Brown’s guitar player is not there to shred so his guitar is not set up for shredding — it’s set up for clean tone, chicka-chicka funk syncopation, as Prince soon realizes. So he starts playing some chicka-chicka funk licks, and doing it pretty well, but this is not flashy stuff. He tries to sex it up a little, but his guitar tone is just not appropriate for this kind of playing. It is decidedly not awesome, and it is not going to make James Brown (or anyone else) remember the name “Prince.” So he drops to his knees and starts pulling out some Jimi Hendrix moves that don’t work so well if, unlike Hendrix, you have no sound coming out of your guitar. James, in the top right corner, is clearly not impressed.
3:43 Finally, desperately, Prince tries a ruse: in the 60 seconds he has been on stage, he has overheated and must take his jacket off immediately, which means that he has to take off this stupid clean-tone chikka-chikka guitar get it OFF ME!
3:47 The jacket coming off gets the first audible reaction from the audience since Michael moonwalked. Prince’s whole air through all this is very drama queeny, confusing “petulant” with “sexy.” Now stripped to the waist and wearing skintight (leather?) pants, he approaches center stage. Is he really going to try and outdance Michael Jackson and James Brown? Right in front of them? Really? Apparently he is: he does one of James’ signature moves, the mic stand rocked forward then back, adding a little under-the-legs razzle dazzle reminiscent of a game of Keepaway. It’s fine, but once again, not awesome.
4:11 Now Prince steps up with the mic and hisses a few whispers that I’m sure he thinks are going to be much sexier than they turn out to be. Then back to some more of that super “sexy” dancing that really doesn’t look the same without the bathtub and the smoke machine.
4:28 Nothing is working! Now having been on stage for two full minutes, and having failed to impress in three categories — wank, dance, sing — he now turns to the refuge of the truly desperate performer: audience participation. He tries to lead the crowd in an overhead clap, but on every fourth beat instead of every second, so the audience is confused and does not join in. Prince is marooned on James Brown’s stage, shirtless, in front of a crowd that is starting to question Michael Jackson’s judgement.
4:43 Abruptly, Prince takes a bow and without looking back to James or Michael or his pile of clothes, moves to leave the stage. He reaches out to swing himself down to the floor on the full-size recreation of a street light at far stage right, but as it is a prop and not a real street light, it can’t support his weight, so he pulls the whole thing over and into the audience, and the video is over.
It is stunning, really, the way this goes down. James Brown, inescapably THE looming figure of a generation of black music that was on its way out, invites its two biggest upstarts onto his stage (and James Brown, more than anyone before or since, saw any stage that he was on as HIS STAGE), and one of them takes the biggest figurative dump on that stage possible. I think the only way it could have been worse is if the figurative dump had been literal.
Anyway, as Prince took the stage with Stevie Wonder and borrowed a guitar, it hit me immediately: Stevie Wonder’s guitar player is not here to shred. His guitar is not set up for high-gain, high-volume shredding. History is about to repeat itself!
And indeed it does, to some degree: Prince soon realizes that this guitar is not going to do what he wants it to do, and quickly abandons it, and dances his way through the song, not bothering to sing or really do anything. But, older and wiser, he has none of the brash, cocky peacocking that characterized the debacle on James Brown’s stage. Almost 25 years later the name “Prince” means more than even he ever thought it would, so this time when he doesn’t do much of anything, the crowd goes nuts anyway.